Tuesday, October 29, 2019

TetZooCon 2019

As much as I enjoyed Australia, I couldn't stay for long, and one of the reasons I couldn't was that TetZooCon was being held the following weekend. Despite my reluctance to leave behind a land of rich biodiversity and unique Southern Hemisphere clades, TetZooCon is always a good time and I had no intention of missing it. Building on its successful run last year, this year's TetZooCon also spanned two days, boasting events such as panel discussions (on archosaur paleontology and natural history filmmaking), parallel sessions, and more. With this year, we came ever closer to assembling the former crew of TetZoo Time in one place, seeing as comic inker Rebecca Groom, comic colorist Gareth Monger, and myself were all in attendance.

I've never seen a bad presentation at TetZooCon, but if I had to pick favorites from this year, my personal highlights would include Mike Dickison's talk on what makes a "native" New Zealand bird, Dave Hone's talk on the importance of defining terms in dinosaur paleontology, Lauren McGough's talk on her experiences hunting with golden and crowned eagles, and Tim Haines's talk on popularizing paleontology using digital media (e.g.: Walking with Dinosaurs).

One of the new features this year was the art show, showcasing work by a range of accomplished paleoartists. I was especially thrilled to see several of Luis Rey's original paintings on display. I remember seeing many of them in early 2000s paleontology books and they left a strong impression on me at the time, introducing me to then-new and exciting finds being unveiled in dinosaur paleontology.

One of Rey's iconic depictions of the Jehol Biota, featuring a trio of Beipiaosaurus as the centerpiece.
This Quetzalcoatlus looked familiar, but I don't remember having seen it carrying anything in its beak!

I chose to attend the paleoart workshop this year (in part as a show of support for paleoartist friends who were speaking), though this meant missing out on the nature documentary panel. Joschua Knüppe, Rebecca Groom, Agata Stachowiak, and Jed Taylor gave brief talks on their respective artistic endeavors, and throughout the session we were encouraged to exercise our creativity using provided art supplies. Joschua was granted the honor of selecting a theme for the workshop, and he suggested depicting prehistoric life in art styles reflective of the nations in which they were found.

Not being particularly familiar with different art styles, let alone enough to attempt replicating them at short notice, I mainly defaulted to my standard drawing style. In my defense, I did try to venture a little outside of my comfort zone by having a go at restoring some fossil birds that I hadn't before, such as the stem-mousebird Celericolius and the stem-flamingo Palaelodus. Being on a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic kick with the recent conclusion of the series, I also couldn't resist drawing a My Little Maniraptor. Besides, I rationalized, it counted as non-standard paleoart and would be encouraged. In spite of my unadventurous efforts, it had been so long since I'd seriously drawn with pencil and paper that I ran into some unexpected challenges, like not being able to revert mistakes with the "undo" button or not being able to put items on different "layers".

In my recent forays into drawing My Little Maniraptor, I've found that I quite enjoy drawing my maniraptor design for Fluttershy, which is ironic because I used to consider her one of the hardest to draw. Also shown are my attempts at restoring Celericolius, Longipteryx, and Palaelodus (only the head of which is visible here).

Well, I certainly wasn't winning any prizes with that, especially considering some of the impressive work produced by other workshop attendees. As usual, I performed better on the TetZooCon quiz. Although I didn't come in first place like I did last year, I did tie for second with Kelvin Britton (who has also won first place in previous years, in his case several times)!

The day after the conclusion of the main event, Darren led an informal field trip to the London Zoo, which I gladly joined. We saw the vast majority of the zoo, including some of the more rarely-seen species. To paraphrase Ville Sinkkonen, only in a crowd like this could one find so many people excited about seeing a caecilian's cloaca. My favorite sighting though was probably the baby narrow-striped boky (though it was too active and the lighting was too dark for me to photograph)! As ever, TetZooCon did not disappoint, and I look forward to seeing how it develops next year.

A blue tree monitor.
A black-naped fruit dove.
A southern tamandua scaling a wall.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

I didn't have much time to do touristy things during my time in Australia, but I did get to visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. As its name suggests, it was originally founded as a sanctuary for koalas specifically, but is now also home to a wide variety of Australian species.

One of the first animals one will see upon entering are these flying foxes.

Although I didn't get to see wild frogmouths in Australia, I did see several living individuals thanks to both the Koala Sanctuary and the Queensland Museum.

High on the list of the animals I wanted to see in Australia were platypuses, and the Koala Sanctuary gave me excellent views of them. They spent a lot of time swimming around actively while I was watching them, but this one was cooperative enough to lie still at the bottom of its tank for a short time.

Some Mary River turtles, an endangered turtle species that was only scientifically described in 1994.

Wildlife was abundant on the sanctuary grounds, and probably the most common were Australian water dragons and Australian brushturkeys. Here I managed to catch both in the same shot.

A wild maned duck.

A white-bellied sea eagle, one of several species flown in the Koala Sanctuary's raptor show. Others they showcased during my visit were barn owl, barking owl, and peregrine falcon.

Some lace monitors huddled in a hollow log.

A Mertens's water monitor not in the water.

A freshwater crocodile basking alongside a young wild water dragon. Presumably the crocodile isn't hungry, the young water dragon is very foolhardy, or both.

A wild bush stone-curlew shopping for postcards, or maybe for scraps of food dropped by visitors. Despite being shorebirds, these birds generally forage inland, usually at night.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

SVP 2019

This year's SVP was held in far-off Brisbane, Australia! (At least, "far-off" from the perspective of the usual majority contingent of North American and European delegates.) Australia has long been a bucket list location for me, so I was thrilled that I was fortunate enough to attend. This was not only my first time in Australia, but also my first time anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

It was amazing. Seeing all the Australian wildlife alone made the trip worth it. Before I saw a single rock pigeon in the city parks, I'd already seen seven species of birds I'd never seen previously. One of the most common, of course, was the Australian ibis (locally known as the "bin chicken"). In the background here is a maned duck, also known as the Australian wood duck due to its habit of nesting in trees, though it is not closely related to the North American wood duck.

An Australasian darter drying its wings.

I took one day away from the conference to go on a guided birding tour with my supervisor Daniel Field, my labmate Juan Benito, and fellow paleornithologist Adam Smith. As a group we saw or heard over 100 bird species, which means that I saw more bird species in three days in Australia than I have in three years of being in England.

Among the many birding hotspots we visited near Brisbane were these mangrove forests.

We saw three kingfisher species in or near the mangroves: laughing kookaburra, Torresian kingfisher, and sacred kingfisher (pictured).

A black-faced cuckooshrike. Cuckooshrikes arose from an early split within the clade Corvides, the songbirds more closely related to crows than to sparrows.

I'd been hoping to see woodswallows on the trip, and this white-breasted woodswallow granted my wish. Woodswallows are members of an Australasian radiation of songbirds called the artamids. This group also includes birds such as the Australian "magpie" and currawongs, which we also saw in Brisbane. As their name suggests, woodswallows are convergent on swallows in their ecology, catching insects by skillfully flying through the air.

I was also excited to comb-crested jacanas. We even saw a male leading three chicks around (though it was too far away for my camera).

Here's a flying tetrapod of a different sort. Flying foxes were a common sight throughout much of Brisbane, especially in flowering trees.

The highlight for me though was seeing two young powerful owls! (Daniel got a photo of one of them.) The wild koala was cool, too. Probably the only real mishap we encountered was that we got accidentally locked inside a campground after dark, but that was ultimately more of an inconvenience than anything. Also, the fact that we didn't get to see any wild frogmouths. On the whole though, I consider this year's trip to have been a great success, and I look forward to next year!

Oh, right, I was also there to attend a conference or something...

The conference itself was certainly a good time. The welcome reception took place in the Queensland Museum, where the museum staff brought out some of their live animals (used in their educational programs) for us to see. And though I didn't manage to see frogmouths in the wild on this trip, one of those education animals was a tawny frogmouth!

This wombat proved to be very popular.

In addition to the live frogmouth, there were also these taxidermied specimens on display.

The taxidermy displays in general were quite impressive. Here a barn owl is shown preying on a long-haired rat, a species whose population goes through dramatic boom-and-bust cycles.

A pair of striped possums (ecologically convergent with the Malagasy aye-aye), along with a white-lipped tree frog.

A perentie that had died trying to swallow an echidna. I first learned of this specimen from Tetrapod Zoology.

Befitting the occasion, the Queensland Museum also has a number of paleontological exhibits. Here are some paleontologists mingling near a skeletal mount of Muttaburrasaurus.

The ankylosaur Kunbarrasaurus, known from a nearly complete specimen.

Although I've presented talks at scientific conferences before, this year marks the first time I've given one at SVP. I talked about my recently published work on the phylogenetic relationships within Strisores, the nightjars, swifts, hummingbirds, and their kin. People seemed to like it, or at least everyone who mentioned it to me afterward did. As part of my presentation, I included a parody of the Twitter logo drawn as a nightjar. (I also made a turaco version for Daniel's talk and shared my existing Ichthyornis with Juan.)

As for the talks that I enjoyed, select highlights include the following:
  • Christopher Nedza's talk on changes in melanosome distribution during the decay of fish carcasses
  • Kieren Mitchell's talk on the phylogenetic position of dire wolves
  • Wang Shiying's talk on a new basal pygostylian from the Jehol Group
  • James Neenan's talk on convergent sensory ecologies between alvarezsaurs and owls
  • Patrick O'Connor's talk on an unusual avialan from the Maevarano Formation
  • Todd Green's talk on the development of bony crests in birds
  • Ian Miller's talk on how plants shaped vertebrate ecosystems during the Late Cretaceous and early Paleogene
My guide to paleocolor in dinosaurs had an unexpected presence at the meeting. Firstly, it was featured (and praised!) in Arindam Roy's talk on amniote paleocolor reconstruction. Secondly, my friend Jun-Hyeok Jang showed me a Korean dinosaur book that'd been illustrated with a multitude of entertaining cartoons, among them one that had almost certainly been inspired by my guide!
My original for comparison.

The SVP auction was fun as usual, though I was nodding off by the end of it all thanks to lingering jetlag. This year's auction theme was not any specific pop culture work, but a more generalized theme of "Australia"; thus, the hosts dressed up as kangaroos, cassowaries, and so on.

For the afterparty I'd thought that it would have been a missed opportunity not to play songs by Professor Flint, a science communicator who specializes in singing about Australian paleontology. The organizers more than met my expectations by treating us to a Professor Flint live performance! I got the sense that many attendees were somewhat perplexed by this, but songs with science-related lyrics are my jam, so I was honestly pretty delighted. In any case, Professor Flint's show was soon followed by a more conventional (at least by paleontologist standards) dance party, presumably putting the confused parties at ease. I'm not much of a partier though, so I retired for the night.

I'd enjoyed my time in Australia so much that I almost didn't want to leave, but all good things must come to an end. I do hope that I get to visit again someday. In the meantime, I did have TetZooCon to look forward to!

Hungry paleontologists/paleoartists/paleontology enthusiasts at SVP 2019 looking for food. Individuals represented are Tom Parker (Australovenator), myself (Albertonykus), Darren Naish (Eotyrannus), Jun-Hyeok Jang (Brachiosaurus), Henry Thomas (Zhejiangopterus), William Stout (Parasaurolophus), Joe Nicholson (Dinornis), and Tas (Iguanodon).